Disney has already had one family hit this year, with Zootopia, and they’ve got another one on their hands with Jon Favreau’s update of The Jungle Book. It’s not only an eye-popping piece of mostly-digital filmmaking, but it also manages to fix pretty much everything creepy and weird about the original 2D animated movie from the 1960s. The update is a delightful movie, sweet and fun and thrilling in turns.
Newcomer Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, the red-diapered jungle brat being raised by wolves and a panther. Lupita Nyong’o voices Mowgli’s wolf-mom, Raksha, and Sir Ben Kingsley provides the voice of Bagheera. Throughout The Jungle Book Favreau’s voice casting proves to be inspired (I mean, of course, this is the guy who gave us RDJ as Tony Stark), and he gets real, layered performances from the voice cast, particularly Bill Murray as Baloo.
From Sethi he gets a convincing kid part—he’s super cute and watchable, and doesn’t feel like a little stage-managed robot. Sethi hits some annoying kid notes that make Mowgli feel like an actual person, which is really important because he is literally the only person on screen. The few other humans who do pop up are not only kept purposefully distant and vague, they’re not real. Everything in The Jungle Book is digital animation except for Sethi, and he makes an endearing human heart for the story.
This is the true magic of The Jungle Book—the animation is stupendous. You feel like you are IN the jungle. The environments are photo-real, and the animals, even speaking, look 100% convincing. The varied textures of the different kinds of fur alone are amazing, but the rocks, the lichen on the rocks, different kinds of tree bark, light refracting off water—everything looks REAL. It’s unbelievable, and this one movie pushes digital filmmaking ahead by leaps and bounds. The only thing that looks a bit wonky is fast-rushing water, which so far, no one has cracked. But man, the teams behind the VFX on The Jungle Book get close.
And the story! Super cute! Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks toss out all the codified racism of the original movie and instead tell a story with a simple message—only when you’re being your true self will you find your place in the world. Mowgli is a brave, kind child struggling with his place in the wolf pack that raised him, but neither does he want to embrace the world of man—indeed he learns a harsh lesson about the kind of power man values. The goal of The Jungle Book is differentness, and that when differentness is embraced people and communities become stronger. Like Zootopia’s message about avoiding stereotypes, it’s incredibly timely.
The only odd note in the film—and it is odd, not bad—is King Louie, voiced by Christopher Walken. It’s not the character itself, it’s that Louie still sings the song “I Wanna Be Like You”. Walken is perfect, naturally, and the authentic ape design sweeps away the racist undertones that burdened Louis Prima's version, so in this iteration, the song plays more like “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. It’s just that it doesn’t really fit. It’s a proper musical number, when the only other song in the movie is “Bear Necessities”, which is much better integrated as a kind of road-trip mantra shared by Baloo and Mowgli. “I Wanna Be Like You” plays more like a traditional number in an actual musical, and it just feels out of place. It’s a minor complaint, but it does stand out as a slightly off note.
Overall The Jungle Book is charming from start to finish. Neel Sethi is adorable as Mowgli, and the stunning visuals are completely convincing. I generally loathe any and all ticket price-hike f*ckery, including 3D, but this is a movie you want to see on the biggest screen you can find, and yes, in 3D. It’s constructed to be an immersive environment, and The Jungle Book is an outrageously gorgeous film to look at. And it’s so fun to watch.
Parental Warning: Some of the animal attack scenes are intense, and might be too much for very small children. The under-fours seated next to me during the screening did not enjoy it all.